Snow in summer. WTF? Everyone I met while in Calgary last week was complaining about the early September wet snowfall that damaged millions of trees and made a nightmare of their roads at a time when no one in that generally prepared city was even remotely prepared. Driving east toward Cowtown from Vancouver the following day, however, I saw no real evidence of this untimely wave of winter's convening hand. Certainly not in the Coast Mountains, browned, baked and drought-ridden as they were — though the 4C air temperatures across the high, pine-beetle barrens of the Coquihalla en route to Kelowna might have given pause or offered a hint. But the Okanagan's answer to California was its usual, sunny and warm self, packed with tourists on wine tours dressed in sunglasses, shorts and t-shirts. Nothing to see here folks — just keep on moving.
The upper horizon through the windshield changed significantly only as I approached Revelstoke, where the mountaintops to the east flashed a white, toothy smile that continued all the way to the summit of Rogers Pass. Still, there was no snow on the road and relatively mild temperatures prevailed. Golden (thankfully) came and went in the same benign flash. It wasn't until the climb out of the Rocky Mountain Trench and Columbia River Valley, that Herculean highway farewell to B.C., that Alberta's brush with the brumal maiden became apparent. Driving through the Yoho pass toward Lake Louise near Field, the snow finally lay low enough to cover the road. The surrounding peaks, like the rock from which they were borne, had turned from limestone grey to marble white.
On a floodplain at the Alberta border, where a braided stream meandered, a small herd of elk grazed through sparkling alabaster, the oddly protruding plants still leafy and green. Likewise snow had painted in the upper runs of Lake Louise Ski Area, leaving its lower reaches nicely dusted. The highway to Banff was crowded not with the usual wildlife but accidents of every description, and strewn everywhere with vehicles abandoned mid-journey, the police radar-straps desperate to keep the speeds down to manageable levels. Out past Canmore, which looked pretty much as it does mid-winter — like a mall limned with a patina of snow — and into Kananaskis country, the slopes of Nakiska, Canada's most inexplicable ski area, had reared up from the foothills wearing a generous coat. This storm had clearly barrelled in out of the literal blue to hammer the Front Range hard. Boom. So different than Whistler, where winter descends upon us slowly, first seeding itself on high as here, of course, but creeping downward toward the valley incrementally over the course of several months, even then acting like it's not really sure it wants to stay until December. It's more like a slow tease than an unwelcome surprise, an enticement that makes the snow even more desirable. Snow.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I like to remind myself each year that snow really is the Earth's best magic trick — even if the trick is no secret. Coalescing from an atmospheric crucible of temperature, moisture, and particulates, these sublime and fragile crystals descend earthward to instantly alter everything they touch. It's a transformative aesthetic that can last minutes, months, or, in the case of glaciers, millions of years.
Of course a glacier's icy heart is a paean to snow's other supernatural quality: its incredible capacity for metamorphosis. Aggregating first from individual flakes, then to a community that shifts in form and fortitude in the presence of warmth, wind, water, and pressure, at any point in time snow is never exactly the same as when it first appeared. Snow carries the memory and signature of everything and anything that has happened during its existence. Very much like people.
Also like people, snow can be playful, yielding, firm and occasionally destructive. Maybe that's why we're drawn to seek passage in it. The lifetime of every snowfall mirrors our own natural arc of struggle and survival, a subconsciously understood journey from purity, innocence and unsullied beauty to whatever life sculpts for us... followed by a slow dissolution to nothingness.
That sounds harsh, but as skiers we experience this endlessly repeating plot as essence — following the snow, always anticipating its rebirth and in that, the reawakening of our own innocence. Chemistry + physics = Deepak Chopra eat your heart out.
Out onto the Prairie and on toward Calgary, I was getting close, the gleaming hump of Canada Olympic Park occasionally deliquescing on the horizon. And then I saw them. Just past The Middle of Nowhere and somewhere near Cochrane, far off to my left, on a hillock above a farm field that stood maybe 20 metres higher than the surrounding land, were the oh-so-familiar tracings of ski tracks. There were three sets running side-by-side, no more than seven or eight turns each, with the underlying grass showing at the apex of each arc where the skier's weight had pushed down hardest. A mere gesture, but the effort spoke volumes. Someone out there was clearly jonesing.
Snow in summer? Yessiree. This is how it begins, people. Here we go again.